A bittersweet and uncertain homecoming awaits a Korean-turned-Russian Olympic speed-skating champion

Home advantage in Sochi.
Home advantage in Sochi.
Image: AP Photo/Morry Gash
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Update: The Russian Olympic Committee said on Jan. 23 that Viktor Ahn will be barred from participating in the Winter Olympics.

Viktor Ahn, an eight-time Olympic short-track speed skating champion, will compete in what could be his final Olympics in Pyeongchang next year before a South Korean crowd that knows him as Ahn Hyun-soo. That is, if he competes at all.

Ahn, 32, competed for South Korea until 2011—and won three golds in the 2006 Turin games—when he became a Russian citizen after falling out with the Korean skating union. At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Ahn won three gold medals, becoming the first Russian to win in short-track skating—it was such a huge shock to Korea, a speed-skating power, that former president Park Geun-hye ordered an inquiry into how one of Korea’s top athletes ended up competing for another nation. The US also reportedly tried to lure Ahn to their side.

However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled this week that Russia will not be allowed to compete in February’s Pyeongchang games after an independent investigation into a state-sponsored doping scandal resulted in more than a dozen athletes being stripped of medals from the Sochi games.

There is a loophole—Russian athletes who are able to prove they are clean will be allowed to participate in the games under the neutral Olympic flag by competing as an “Olympic Athlete from Russia.” Ahn, who is training in South Korea with his Russian teammates, told Korean media today (Dec. 6) that he plans to compete as a neutral athlete, but only if Russia doesn’t fully boycott the games. When asked what he would do if Russia decides to boycott the Olympics instead of fielding a neutral team, Ahn said: “I don’t know. I don’t want to think about that.” Russia has said that making its athletes compete under a neutral flag is “a humiliation.”

If Ahn is able to give what might be his final Olympics performance in front of a home crowd, he is prepared for a hostile reception, he said in an interview with South Korean news service Yonhap in July. Ahn’s first competition in South Korea since becoming Russian was in December 2016 at an international short-track competition.

Ahn is currently the most decorated Olympic short-track skater ever, tied with Apolo Ohno of the US.

Ahn, who lives in Russia with his Korean wife and their daughter, chose the name Viktor after becoming a Russian citizen because he was partly inspired by Viktor Tsoi, a legendary Soviet rock star of Korean descent who died in 1990 in a car crash.